talks with my mom

Loaded Questions Vol. 4

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Daniel Cánovas: The “gaming is art” topic is becoming less interesting to me each day. Maybe only the act of creating them is art, but that’s not the question I want to ask you. Have you ever heard the expression “To read is to live twice”? With this expression in mind, I decided to compare playing to reading, and I ended up developing a short text that made me reappreciate visual novels. Do you think it’s valid at all to say, “To play a video game is to live twice”?

Jed Pressgrove: It’s possible I have heard someone say “To read is to live twice,” but my memory gets worse every year. Regardless, I am familiar with the sentiment behind that expression. There is a feeling among many readers that literature, more so than any other art form, allows one to tap deeply into the human condition and spirit. I don’t feel this way, mainly because a lot of literature is poorly executed.

That aside, my answer is straightforward: sometimes to play a video game is to live twice. I think of Vaida’s Talks With My Mom. Playing that game was like living in two ways that I’ve never lived. I’ve never had to experience the pressure of fitting into a heterosexual feminine category like the girl protagonist; I’ve also never felt the concern of a mother who just wants life to be traditional and simple for her daughter (and herself). In Nier: Automata, I got a strong sense of the hate, fear, and willful ignorance that can drive one to genocide, especially during the segments where I watched the bodies of robots explode due to the lethal combinations and hacks I performed as 9S.

On a final note, as great as “living twice” can be, I don’t think it has to be the ultimate goal of any game. People who expect games to be just like literature or movies or whatever are unrealistic and shortsighted. Games can be many things. They can be living twice, they can be sports, they can be puzzles. I try to appreciate and criticize them for what they are.

Question 2

Álvaro Rico: What do you think is the most important factor for you personally at the time of writing a good review?

Jed Pressgrove: Conviction. I have to believe in what I’m saying, even if no one shares my opinion. I have to be willing to put my thoughts and feelings out there. Style and technique are important, but if I didn’t have conviction, I wouldn’t bother writing reviews.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After watching some footage of Detroit: Become Human, I began to think about choice in video games. I’m not talking about how a player would approach a situation (for example, “Should I attack a monster from afar or up close?”), I’m thinking more about games with morality systems that are designed to challenge players’ minds. What are some great examples of games where choices made have real implications that arouse emotions, and what’s the worse case of a game that tries to cash in on this idea but fails to do so?

Jed Pressgrove: To address your first question, the first game that comes to mind is Choice: Texas. In my review, I talked at length about the story of Leah and how the game’s presentation of choice emotionally transcended the dialogue that the United States was having about rape and abortion.

Another game that fits your description is the original Fallout. There are few games with Fallout’s level of freedom. During one game of Fallout, I decided to kill everyone, whether I would deem them bad or good. Just kill every last person I could find. What started out as an amusing diversion for a kid (I was in my teens at the time) ended up giving me an incredibly hollow feeling. It wasn’t just that I had made a complex game one-dimensional; the experience suggested that exterminating life can never satisfy a person.

You might also be interested in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A pivotal decision in its first chapter has an undeniably large effect on the game’s second chapter and how you perceive the different factions and individuals in the story.

As for your second question, I’d have to go with Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It is by far the best example of a game whose only purpose is to cash in on the idea of emotionally charged choices. Telltale’s work (and its influence) is largely a disgrace to storytelling and game design, and Game of Thrones’ mindless imitation of the HBO television show cannot be excused in any way.

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Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

There is no critical value in hyping any conception of “video game,” traditional or otherwise. The following works simply accomplish their goals, modest or not, better than the numerous other 2014 games that I played.

Note: You can check out my 10 worst video games of 2014 here.

1. Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk’s emphasis on derailing plot, a cue from the Marx Brothers, turns video game campaigns and side missions into farce. (People who pontificate about “narrative” or “gameplay” might be too jaded to laugh, though.) Developer Necrophone Games’ dedication to irreverence outplays Obsidian Entertainment’s adolescent marketing and genre triteness in South Park: The Stick of Truth. Jazzpunk never gets haughty about the artificiality of games and takes joy in the absurd possibilities of the form.

(See full review of Jazzpunk here.)

2. Choice: Texas

Some say “every game is political” and others say “keep politics out of games,” but I often get the sense people are talking more about how game content either massages or insults their partisan egos. The life politics in Choice: Texas reject partisanship to explore practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns. Text-based second guessing conveys how policy, family, religion, school, and work can lead pregnant women to visit and revisit decisions that are as sociological as they are personal.

(See full review of Choice: Texas here.)

3. Talks With My Mom

Unlike Mountain, Talks With My Mom is a masterpiece of minimalism. The game’s focus on mother and daughter confronts the anxiety of raising children and growing up gay, trumping the lack of sociology and dignity in Gone Home’s horror cliches. Even if someone says “not a game” in regard to Talk With My Mom’s ultra-simplistic clicking (which allows the player to punctuate mood and control pacing), developer Vaida’s statement on identity and gender is undeniably mature, non-judgmental (the mother isn’t presented as a mere bigot), and clear.

(See full review of Talks With My Mom here.)

4. The Talos Principle

If it were only a collection of puzzles, The Talos Principle would be impressive and worthwhile. The puzzler further distinguishes itself by addressing the voice of God and the voice of reason. Avoiding propaganda, The Talos Principle magnifies the human vulnerability and intellectual conflict within the Garden of Eden story, an account that is usually analyzed from one-dimensional viewpoints. The smattering of philosophical texts might be tedious, yet this bombardment captures the challenges of thinking in the (Mis)Information Age. The game achieves the most clarity in connecting deity and human as players. The urge to solve puzzles, to be a creator of order, explains more than The Stanley Parable’s smug and obvious design lesson.

(See full review of The Talos Principle here.)

5. Beeswing

One can almost see the human hands that crafted the art and music in Beeswing, but the result still seems magical, particularly during the best video game song of 2014 that dares to express the alienation of the elderly in nursing homes. Beeswing’s checklist of activities represents what a person hopes to accomplish going back home rather than the common attempt in games to glorify content. Even among provocative work like Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History and Will You Ever Return? 2, this is Jack King-Spooner’s masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for Beeswing, but only at the level that allowed me to download the game. Moreover, I do not plan on backing another Kickstarter for a video game. The whole process annoys me.

6. Amazing Princess Sarah

Just ignore how developer Haruneko advertises this game as yet another breast-obsessed adventure on Xbox Live Indie Games. Not satisfied with retro sentimentality like Shovel Knight, Amazing Princess Sarah expands the strategic possibilities and challenges of Super Mario Bros. 2’s enemy throwing. This platformer also gives the “new game plus” concept memorable purpose, outdoing the beat-it-twice legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The rule changes in each version of Amazing Princess Sarah can make difficult sections easy and easy sections difficult, inspiring new appreciation of the game’s five levels.

(See full review of Amazing Princess Sarah here.)

7. Shutshimi

The direction of Shutshimi borders on the avant-garde. The alternating 10-second bursts of shooting and power-up selection defy conventions, especially when you’re forced to choose from power-ups that are almost certain to lead to your death. The narrative of a fish defending his home is punctuated by constant human bicep flexing that recalls the homoerotic overtones of Cho Aniki. Neon Deity Games has created the wildest shooter of our time: a high-score exhibition that celebrates and parodies masculinity.

8. Broken Age Act 1

Tim Schafer’s direction in Broken Age Act 1 is virtuosic. The two stories tie together brilliantly in terms of theme and plot. The voice acting blows away the amateurish efforts of countless bigger-budget games. Although some puzzles might require backtracking, Broken Age is designed to allow a much faster pace than most point-and-click adventures. Broken Age always seems one step ahead with its punchlines, inviting the player to goof off as much as advance.

9. Replay Racer

Mario Kart 8 might have helped make 2014 a banner year for Nintendo banality, but that latest entry of an overrated franchise can’t match the innovative fun and challenge of Replay Racer. Developer Chris Johnson turns every completed lap into a juggernaut that you have to avoid and outrace. By the sixth and final lap, you’re competing against five of your own Frankensteins. If arcades were still respected, Replay Racer would be a hit.

(See full review of Replay Racer here.)

10. Temporality/Snot City/The World The Children Made

Cheat Code: Allow Three Choices for One Spot. Down, Up, Down, Up, Enter.

These three games from James Earl Cox III weren’t released as a trio, but they stand out together in 2014. Temporality gives a more respectful and thoughtful tribute to what is lost in war than Ubisoft’s Looney Tunes/Pokemon treatment of World War I in Valiant Hearts. Snot City exposes formulaic item collection as juvenile horror. Finally, The World The Children Made is a timely adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, warning millennials and their offspring of the potential dehumanization of technological convenience and privilege.

Talks With My Mom Review — From an Individual to the Universe

by Jed Pressgrove

Sometimes art conceals understanding or best intentions. Talks With My Mom avoids this pitfall: without a hint of pretense, the game condenses one girl’s struggle of growing up gay in a traditional household. This honest gem, an entry in Gender Jam, shares and inspires as the protagonist speaks to her bigoted mother. As a storyteller, developer Vaida seems willing to talk to anyone — just one individual communicating to the universe.

A lot can be said about gender and sexuality with stick figures. This style is not an abstraction but rather allows us to fill in the gaps through the context of the dialogue. With its frank approach and sequencing, Talks With My Mom is reminiscent of hyperpersonal autobiographical comic books like Maus and American Splendor. Within the funny book frame, phrases like “It was a tiring day” work both as empathy devices and punchlines.

From a player’s perspective, some might criticize the lack of interactivity and options. But as anyone who has played a dreary Twine or an engaging Twine knows, clicking itself can be a grind or feel as fluid as a game with good combat mechanics. Talks With My Mom’s clicking is very agreeable, as you don’t have to click anything in particular to advance — click the mother, click the daughter, click dark space, click the text, whatever. With this freedom, the story’s rhythm and mood are yours to influence. It is entirely possible that the player’s clicking style can make the talks in the game more or less awkward or humorous (or perhaps clicking isn’t a style so much as a reflection of our own personal reactions).

The protagonist’s strained relationship with her mother is presented with maturity to spare. Although the game pulls no punches in showing the mother’s anti-gay, anti-genderqueer, anti-trans, and anti-individual statements, Vaida illustrates her mother’s ignorance and badgering with care and humor, not hate (“We went shopping. Again. She’s very persistent.”). Talks With My Mom also shows how looking back can reveal new perspective. “I thought you were done with this eccentricity” hurts coming from any parent, but its utter naivety is laughable coming from a taller stick figure. Parenting can be a joke.

An implicit message of Talks With My Mom is looking back at moments, however painful, and reaping lessons from obvious and unlikely places. The complexity of the mother’s bigoted beliefs comes to a head when she offers a valid point of parental worry: “The majority of people will judge you.” The protagonist’s answer to this concern defines the game. Talks With My Mom stars a gay girl but has the potential to entertain or enlighten anyone. The game’s comments on family debate and individuality reach across all aisles — Vaida’s purpose is unquestionable, her young life on clear display.